Guanajuato City feels like one of the happiest places on Earth. The cradle of Mexican Independence, nationals come here to pay homage to their forefathers and celebrate all night long. The city doesn’t get many international tourists—making it one of the country’s best-kept secrets. We first came to this state capital in 2016 and were instantly wooed by its vibrant energy and curious construction. Built into the mountainside, the colorful houses and grand colonial buildings are connected by winding stairwells, tunnels, and alleyways, with few cars to be seen. Ambling downhill, you reach the heart of the old city (founded in 1554) and a boulevard wide enough for architects to spread their wings. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, Guanajuato’s mines accounted for two-thirds of the world’s silver production, and the Spanish colonists spared no expense on their prized city. Historic churches, ornate theaters, and metropolis-like mines have collectively put it on the UNESCO World Heritage List, while the University of Guanajuato and the Festival International Cervantino of the arts keep it young and lively. Mariachi bands serenade the plazas, street carts sizzle with tacos, centuries-old architecture glitters with lights, and everyone is having fun well past their bedtime. It’s truly one of our favorite cities in the world and among the few that made it into our book, Ultimate Journeys for Two. We were thrilled to spend another week in Guanajuato City, retracing our steps for a possible second edition of our Nat Geo guide and partnering with the their state tourism board to share our love for the region with this Guanajuato, Mexico guide.
Get Oriented at El Pípila
Start your visit at El Pípila Monument for unbeatable panoramic views of the city and a glimpse into Guanajuato’s role in Mexico’s War of Independence. In 1810 Guanajuato was one of the first major Spanish cities to be taken back by the people, partially spurred by the brave young miner Juan José de los Reyes Martínez (El Pípila) running into a deluge of Spanish gunfire (with only a rock on his back for protection) to light their fortress on fire. He perished but lives on as a 30-foot stone statue holding the “torch of liberty” high above the city. Take the funicular to the top of the mountain to admire Guanajuato’s dramatic landscape and return on foot via the winding alleyways to get a taste of local life and the city’s fabulous street art.
Wander The Plazas & Alleyways
Plaza de La Paz and its surrounding streets are the heart of the old city. Anchored by the gold and auburn Basilica de Guanajuato and its gardens, the church complex is surrounded by 18th-century architecture and bustling sidewalk cafes. Wander down any alley that calls to you, be it for a canopy of dangling umbrellas or the sound of mariachis. Head west along Avenida Benito Juárez and you’ll reach Plazuela de San Fernando, with its mosaic cobblestones, flowing fountain, and colonial houses. Serene by day and lively by night, it’s the perfect place to revisit again and again to feel the rhythm of the city. Head west and you’ll reach the triangular Jardin de la Unión and the opulent Teatro Juárez. Find a bench under the shade of interwoven laurel trees and people watch the merriment…families eating ice cream, musicians serenading smitten couples, and entertainers dressed in 17th-century garb wooing people to join their callejoneadas (nightly roving singalongs unique to Guanajuato).
Guanajuato Walking Tour by Night
While Guanajuato’s charm quickly presents itself, taking a walking tour is a fantastic way to navigate the city’s thousands of alleys and centuries of history. In the first edition of Ultimate Journeys for Two we featured Mexico Street Food Tours to lead readers to the best stalls, bakeries, and markets (Hidalgo Market is a must) behind this dynamic cuisine. This time, we took their Bars and Tacos Night Tour to get a taste of the city and something to wash it down with. Better than any pub crawl, this English-speaking tour showed us five of the best local bars serving the most traditional regional drinks…pulque (fermented agave sap), Charanda (sugarcane liquor), michelada (a beer-based Bloody Mary of sorts), and Guanajuato-style mezcal (a fruit-infused version of tequila’s down-home cousin). Between bars, we’d stop to learn about historic landmarks and nosh at traditional food stalls. It was the most fun and satiating way to learn about a city.
Museo Casa Diego Rivera
Perhaps Guanajuato’s most famous citizen, Diego Rivera is world-renowned for his political murals and storied love affair with fellow artist Frida Kahlo. Born in 1886 on Positos Street, his childhood home is now a museum with over 100 original Rivera works. The downstairs is modeled after his family’s 19th-century living quarters, while the floors above display black and white photos of the iconic couple, studies for his murals, cubist paintings influenced by his time with Picasso, and little-known nude drawings of Frida.
Callejón del Beso (Kiss Alley)
Sneak a lucky kiss on Callejón del Beso. Legend has it that forbidden lovers lived across the street, but with balconies only 27 inches apart, their lips could still meet. Today it’s tradition for couples to climb up to their respective verandas and lean over for a smooch, all while the tourist paparazzi captures the moment from down below. Locking lips is said to ensure seven years of happiness so it’s certainly worth a shot.
The Mining Riches of La Valenciana
Trace Guanajuato’s wealth back to the silver vein running through the village of La Valenciana. This mother lode continued to produce up to 60% of the world’s silver through the 18th century. Take a three-mile ride (collectivo or Uber) up the mountain to reach La Valenciana’s central plaza. Be sure to get a taco…the name for this national dish is believed to have originated from the silver mines of Mexico. Head into the exceptionally ornate San Cayetano church, considered by UNESCO to be one of the best examples of baroque architecture in Latin America. Around the bend is Bocamina San Ramón, a 400-year-old mining complex with its company store, cantina, and mine shaft to explore. Follow your Spanish-speaking guide 200-feet deep into the belly of the earth; it doesn’t take any language skills to understand the hard work that went on here.
Cervantino Arts Festival & A City of Fiesta
While mining put Guanajuato on the map, the arts scene keeps it front and center. Using the grand theaters built from the silver wealth and its many pocket plazas as additional stages, Guanajuato is host to the International Cervantes Festival. It’s said to be the most important and largest performing arts event in all of Latin America, hosting plays, concerts, dance performances, and films around the city for three weeks straight. It has been held in Guanajuato every year since 1972, and while it was canceled in 2020, the festivities resume October 13-31, 2021! Though no matter when you visit the city, you’ll see their mascot Don Quixote throughout town in statues, murals, menus, and more as a constant reminder of the celebration. Performers always use the streets as their stage, music flows through the alleys, and everyone parties like it’s festival time. This is a city that loves life and makes you want to live there. In fact, one of the joys of our trip was spending time with numerous American, German, and Aussie expat friends that have made the city their home—be it for months or decades on end. We were hard-pressed to leave, but know we’ll always find our way back to Guanajuato.
Guanajuato, Mexico Guide: Trip Planning
When to Go: At 6,725 feet above sea level, the mountain locale is cooler than most of the country. May is the hottest month (high of 87°F) with summer rains quickly cooling it down. The most pleasant days are September-March, with the Cervantino Festival making October exra lively.
Where to Stay: Villa María Cristina: A 19th-century townhouse on an elegant boulevard, earning its Relais & Châteaux stripes. Casa del Rector: Once the house of Guanajuato’s first governor, this neoclassical building looks like a sliver from the street, but opens up to an oasis of courtyards, pools, rooftop patios, and beautifully appointed rooms.
Where to Eat: Try these picks from our travel writer and resident Guanajuato friend Tim Leffel: Casa Mercedes and Mestizo for fine dining and Oajillo Gastro Bar for a fabulous affordable lunch. For vegan options, we can personally recommend Habibti Falafel and Escarola. And don’t be afraid of the street food, eating esquites and tacos are part of the cultural experience!
Watch this video from our time in Guanajuato to see our travel tips in action…
Thank you to the Guanajuato Ministry of Tourism for sponsoring this blog! For more wonderful destinations within the state of Guanajuato, check out Guanajuato.mx